Joe Biden’s Greatest Strength Is Also His Greatest Vulnerability
In February 2020, just before the world shut down, I was waiting for Joe Biden to speak on a Friday night in Henderson, Nev. The next morning I watched Bernie Sanders rally a fairly young, largely Latino crowd in a packed Las Vegas high school cafeteria. The Biden event, held when it looked as if he would not win the nomination, was smaller and more subdued. On the other side of a rope separating media from attendees, a group of Biden supporters were talking about how stressful it would be to be president at their and Mr. Biden’s age. As I remember it, one of them said, “But he feels he has to do it.”
Not much has changed about the substance of their conversation since then, other than three long years: Mr. Biden, at 80, is the oldest U.S. president ever. If and when he announces a re-election campaign, he will put into play the idea of an even older president, eventually 86 years old. “Is age a positive thing for him? No,” Nancy Pelosi recently told Maureen Dowd, before adding that age is “a relative thing.” For reasons ultimately only Mr. Biden can know, it seems he feels he has to do it.
There’s a straightforward dimension to the problem: The effects of age can get beyond your control, and it’d be a safer bet to leave office before the risk probability elevates to a danger zone. Barney Frank decided well in advance that he would retire from Congress at 75, then did so in his early 70s. You could feel that would be the right choice for Mr. Biden or any other leader over a certain age threshold, and be done with this topic. But age and health knot together different contradictions in America. Everything’s so weird now. Tech types, athletes and people of means are spending millions to keep their bodies youthful, and to defeat decline, if not death. We live in this society where people frequently talk about their resentment of older leadership — and elect and re-elect older leaders.
Donald Trump would also, were he to win and serve out a second term, turn 82, and you could view the final days of the first Trump White House through this prism. Nearly a quarter of the Congress was over 70 last year, Insider found, up from 8 percent in 2002. Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican and Iowa’s senior senator, won re-election at age 89 last fall. Two of the most powerful and defining congressional leaders of most of our lives — Mitch McConnell and Ms. Pelosi — are in their 80s, and until the recent hockey line change in House leadership, much of the Democratic congressional leadership was over 70. The Treasury secretary is 76. Two Supreme Court justices are in their 70s; in the last decade, death changed the ideological balance of the court.
If he runs for this second term, squarely in this space of all these contradictions, Mr. Biden is making the same ask as he did during the 2020 election — to trust him, to trust that he will be proven right about himself. Qualitatively, Mr. Biden represents familiarity and stability, which both derive from his age and sit in uneasy tension with it.
Mr. Biden premised his 2020 campaign on his singular ability to win the presidency, when a good number of people in politics and media didn’t think he could win even the nomination. He predicted a level of congressional function that many people found nostalgic to the point of exotic. This skepticism was, on a deep level, about his age and whether his time had passed and whether he was too distant from the political realities of the 2020s. The thing is: Mr. Biden was right before. He did win the nomination. He did win against Donald Trump. The first two years of the Biden presidency did involve a productive and occasionally bipartisan U.S. Congress. On some level, people like me were wrong. This whole presidency originated with Mr. Biden being right about himself, and therefore his age.
And maybe he will be right again! That’s a real possibility, under-discussed in these conversations. Age is relative, as Ms. Pelosi said. Medical science keeps improving, and people keep living longer, healthier lives. Presidents can focus on the big picture and delegate the rest. Mr. Biden’s own parents lived to 86 and 92. Having purpose, professional or otherwise, can rejuvenate all our lives. He looked pretty lively during that State of the Union earlier this month, and certainly in Ukraine and Poland.
A generation of old men, from Clement Attlee to Konrad Adenauer, rebuilt Europe after the catastrophic 1930s and 1940s, back when people lived much shorter lives. Mr. Adenauer, the first leader of West Germany, actually served until age 87. We haven’t lived through anything like World War II, but as we convulse through two decades of staggering technological change, that might explain the resurgence of some older and familiar leaders over the last decade. Maybe rather than resenting this generational hold on power that Mr. Biden represents, some segment of people is relieved by the continuity that he offers, and by his distance from our daily lives.
It’s complicated to leave office when you have real power. If you were Mr. Sanders (81) or Mitt Romney (75), why would you walk away? Mr. Sanders and Mr. Romney retain their essential selves as public figures — they don’t seem especially changed by age. Neither has said whether he’s going to run again. But if they still feel vital and able, and they are in a position of actual agency and responsibility, then it’s hard to see why they should leave public life.
The risk, though, registers at a different pitch with the presidency. Even if we’re not expecting the president to catch a bullet in his teeth or something, we have 100 senators and one president. Hundreds of federal judges, and nine Supreme Court justices. Some stuff matters more than others.
This was a problem even at the very beginning of the country’s history. During the Constitutional Convention, a proposal arose about how to proceed if the president were unable to serve. According to James Madison’s notes, the delegate John Dickinson asked “What is the extent of the term ‘disability’ & who is to be the judge of it?” Nobody’s ever precisely resolved this dilemma, even with the 25th Amendment.
Mr. Biden could be wrong. He could lose the election because of the way voters perceive his age, or he could make it to a second term only to suffer a serious illness in office. Would the country default to a discomfort with visible age and slant one way on Mr. Biden, or take a more nuanced view?
In the fall, while thinking over some of these concerns, I saw Senator John Fetterman speak to a large Saturday afternoon crowd in an indoor sports complex in Scranton, Pa. Mr. Fetterman isn’t old — he’s 53 — but he did suffer a stroke and begin recovery while campaigning for office.
That day in Scranton, though he moved fluidly and alertly, he struggled some with the cadence of his speech, which was mostly one-liners about Dr. Mehmet Oz. But the event opened up into a gentler moment when he asked, “How many one [sic] of you in your own life have had a serious health challenge? Hands. Personally. Any of you?” Tons of hands went silently up from the synthetic grass. “How many of your parents?” Nearly all the remaining hands went up and stayed up while he ticked off a few other close relations. Though this eventually segued into another joke about Mr. Oz, the silent, serious quality of this call-response was not how the campaign often played online and in the media, where Mr. Fetterman’s condition became a weapon to be bashed over him. The politics of health and age can be brutal.
Last week, Mr. Fetterman entered Walter Reed medical center to treat depression. Annie Karni reported that Mr. Fetterman’s recovery has continued to be challenging as he adjusts to new accommodations and limitations. Though he initially faced criticism for not disclosing enough about his condition, over the last several months he has been public about the changes he has gone through and the accommodations he requires, and about depression, something millions of people face but politicians have rarely disclosed.
Aging is different than depression or stroke recovery; but like those experiences, there is no shame in aging, and there’s also no suggesting that everything’s easy about it. The choice for Mr. Biden is only an elevated version of the one many people deal with: When will you know it’s time to retire or step back, and when to keep going? All of us are aging, gaining and losing capacities in ways we may not even be aware of.
There’s no automatic test that will prove someone is “too old,” and even if there were, nobody would want to take it.
You can drive yourself crazy with war games about the ways an election could go. What if Mr. Biden were to run and face a much younger candidate, instead of Mr. Trump? What if he stepped aside in favor of a younger potential successor who then lost to Mr. Trump, invalidating the entire premise of Mr. Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign?
All that there is, in the end, is Mr. Biden’s request — to trust that he is right about himself. He’s been right before, and may well be right again. But the reason this question lingers is the unstable ground of the answer: The source of what makes people worry about the president is also the source of his power and appeal.
Ms. Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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